Note - I write a column for the Shelbyville, Kentucky newspaper, the Sentinel-News, every other Friday. On June 3rd, the Sentinel began publication of a series of columns about belief and unbelief, written by myself and a member of our community, who is an atheist. I thought it would be an interesting conversation and I appreciate the Sentinel-News and my co-author for participating. For the privacy of the other person I am not including their name in the columns as I publish them each week on this site. Even though the person has publicly agreed to have them published in the Sentinel-News, I am not assuming they want their columns or name published on this site.
I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else – C. S. Lewis
Why do people believe what they believe? The answer to that question is not as simple as one might think.
I included the quote by C. S. Lewis at the top of this column because his words are more than a declaration of his foundational belief about life; they bear testimony to the fact that every person has a lens through which they view the world and everything that happens in life. That lens is a powerful force that shapes and determines the manner in which we come to understand and perceive the nature of reality itself.
It is the understanding that we all see the world through a particular lens that we must use as a starting point in the conversation about belief. This lens, through which we view all things, comes to us through our environment and our experiences. I understand and view life in a particular way, for instance, because of the time period and part of the country in which I was raised. Coming of age in the 60s and 70s, when there was a greater sense of hope and optimism in our country, was a factor in bringing me to see the world through a more positive and optimistic lens. Those who come of age in our present world context, presumably, might be more likely to have a pessimistic view of life and the world. The point is, all of us have many influences and experiences that shape the lens of our lives and that lens comes to us early in life and generally without our awareness.
As we age, and move into greater self-awareness, we also become more aware of the lens through which we see life, and we sometimes make a more conscious decision to alter that lens, and this is what I would call the action of choosing a narrative by which we live. A narrative is different from a lens. A lens comes to us by our environment, our social and historical context, our experiences, and many other factors, making it more of an unconscious state of being. A narrative, in contrast, is a way of looking at life that is very much a conscious decision. A lens, in contrast to a narrative, would be the faith that we inherit from our family, while a narrative is the choice we make at some point in life about what we will do with that faith, such as whether we continue to accept it as is, adapt it, or reject it.
This leads us to what is, in my opinion, one of the great fallacies of atheism, which is that one becomes somehow – almost magically – more objective and rational when one chooses the narrative of disbelief, as contrasted to the perceived unobjectivity and irrationality of belief. Changing the narrative by which we live, such as from belief to unbelief, does not make one more objective; it simply provides a different lens through which we see the world. Unbelief, however much it might claim, does not necessarily make one more rational; it simply replaces one lens with another, so that one then sees life and the world through a different set of assumptions and suppositions.
It is for this reason that I would reject the idea that anyone is a so-called free thinker, a term often favored by those operating out of the narrative of unbelief. Because we are all shaped by environment and experiences, it is simply not possible that anyone is able to think freely of their influences. The truth is that even when one changes the narrative by which he lives his life it means he is merely trading one intellectual framework for another; there is no inherent guarantee of objectivity or freedom from intellectual bias. Coming to this realization allows us to understand how one particular point of view might seem so perfectly reasonable, obvious, and true to one person and yet totally unreasonable, unclear, and false to someone else. Free-thinking, then, is an oxymoron, as every belief occurs within a context, and our own beliefs are shaped and molded in ways of which we are unaware. My faith may be an integral part of my life because that was the way I was raised, and the same can be said of unbelief.
Do I believe in God because I made a totally rational choice? Not really. Does an atheist reject belief in God because he makes a totally rational choice? Not really. It is more accurate, I believe, to say that we do not make a rational choice so much as we try to rationalize the choice we have made. If I had been born in another place or time my decision might have been different. Am I a Christian because of my culture and my family? Certainly that has played a role in shaping my beliefs. Would I be a Muslim had I been raised in the Middle East? Would I be an atheist had I been raised in China? There is, of course, no way to know for sure, and most people would protest that they would have made the same set of choices about belief regardless of their place of origin, but I believe it is certain that our choices and our thinking processes do not happen in a vacuum, so let us put aside this irrational idea that we are always dealing in rationality.
We all wear glasses whose lenses are tinted by a particular perspective, and anyone who denies this fact of human existence is either poorly informed or willfully ignorant. It matters not how “rational” one purports to be; the reality is that as human beings we have built-in biases, which are ingrained in us in ways we do not always recognize or understand; and our supposed “rationality” can in no way free us from those biases. All we do, really, is change one set of lenses – or biases – for another. At least that’s what I believe.